St Vincent of Lérins: How Do We Discern Christian Doctrine?

0524vct_zpsd1511730“In the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” (Commonitorium 2.5). During my 25 years as an Episcopal priest, I recited this famous canon of St Vincent of Lérins with greater fervor than the Lord’s Prayer. My fellow Anglicans and I appealed to to it to demonstrate the catholicity of the Anglican Communion: we are Catholic* because we abhor novelty and teach only the divine revelation “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Unlike the Roman Catholics, we do not add to the deposit of faith; unlike the Protestants, we proclaim the fullness and totality of Christian doctrine. I left the Episcopal Church when I finally realized that the Anglican Communion could no longer be characterized as authentically Catholic.

As an Orthodox priest I still subscribe to the Vincentian Canon and happily commend it to my fellow Orthodox Christians. But my understanding of the canon has changed, and I hope deepened, due in large part to my reading of John Henry Newman, Georges Florovsky, and Yves Congar, as well as my experience in the Orthodox Church. More recently, I have come to understand that during my Anglican days I misunderstood and misused the canon as a criterion for the determination of churchly teaching. When properly placed within the Commonitorium, it begins to function as a powerful norm for distinguishing orthodox doctrine from heresy.

In this series of blog articles I hope to explore the Lérinian’s understanding of the semper, ubique, et ab omnibus. We will discover that Vincent held a view of Christian doctrine that is more dynamic, complex, and expansive than many have supposed. Vincent is no antiquarian. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who indwells and inspires the Church of Jesus Christ, Christian doctrine develops and grows as the Church confronts the reality of false teaching and authoritatively interprets the gospel for new generations. Both supporters and critics of the famous maxim have treated it as an independent doctrinal criterion, as if Vincent intended it to stand by itself, without reference to the rest of the Commonitorium. In his recent book Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine, Thomas Guarino states that the 5th century theologian has been neglected by modern scholars because “he has been exclusively connected with what has become known as his ‘canon’ or ‘first rule'” (p. 2). If Vincent’s first rule is construed literally and strictly, it becomes useless as a doctrinal criterion, as few teachings of the Catholic Church actually fulfill it. The great ressourcement theologian Yves Congar, for example, remarks that the rule has only limited validity because of its static and archaizing character (The Meaning of Tradition, p. 71). The great neo-patristic theologian Georges Florovsky similarly dismisses it because of its alleged historical simplification and “harmful primitivism” (Bible, Church, Tradition, p. 53). Guarino, however, vigorously argues that Vincent’s first rule can only be properly understood in light of his less well-known second rule—namely, the inevitability, necessity, and desirability of organic growth in the Church’s understanding of the deposit of faith:

On the basis of his canon, or first rule, Vincent has often been cast as a mere antiquarian. He is guilty as charged if by that term one means he has an abiding interest in preserving the faith given in ancient Israel and in Jesus Christ. But we would entirely misunderstand his attention to antiquity if we did not conjoin to that interest his equally lively concern for development and his belief that antiquity is properly preserved in and through the church’s own continuing life. If Vincent had never written his chapter on development, then perhaps the charge of naive antiquarianism, of curatorial Christianity, of ecclesial primitivism, would have stuck, although even then a counterargument could be marshaled. But his vigorous comments on growth, with its robust endorsement of development (plane et maximus), end all debate.

Vincent’s marked accent on authentic growth over time is another reason why the note of “antiquity” in his first rule should not be pulled out of context. Antiquity itself must always be understood within the horizon of legitimate development. Once again we recognize that when Vincent speaks of “antiquity,” he is not referring to a belief or practice existing in an already fully formed state in the apostolic age. If that were the case, it would render his entire chapter on development meaningless. It would also render the conciliar teaching he so highly praises—with the church’s gradually drawing out the implications of Scripture—entirely unnecessary. Instead, antiquity refers to elements that are present but lying fallow, only to be fully developed in the church’s life over time and, importantly, by means of the proper criteria for organic growth. (p. 16)

Perhaps St Vincent of Lérins has something to teach the Churches of the 21st century.

* In this series, following the English translation of the Commonitorium, I will capitalize “Catholic” when denoting the one Church of Christ and those persons and teachings that belong to it. Vincent did not know of any other Church but the one that embraced both the Latin and Eastern traditions and whose proper name is “Catholic.” When referring specifically to the Roman Catholic communion, I will always append the qualifier “Roman.” I trust my Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant readers will not be offended.

(Go to “Guard the Deposit of Faith”)

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10 Responses to St Vincent of Lérins: How Do We Discern Christian Doctrine?

  1. Lately, I’ve been using the terms “Roman theology” to qualify authentic, Catholic theology (that is our modern understanding of it) and “Byzantine theology”. I guess I’ll also need to throw in “Assyrian theology”, “Coptic theology”, and “Syriac theology” as well!

    I also use “Reformed theology” to denote anything stemming from the Protestant Reformation and “Arianism” has now been changed to “liberalism”.

    Question…what of the Old Catholics who aren’t in union with Rome?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Daniel, I’m afraid I know very little about the Old Catholics, except that they broke off from Rome after Vatican I.

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      • Ah, shucks! But…thinking through…the term Reformed theology can be used in contrast from Catholic/Orthodox theology. Then of course, what would the High Anglicans be? Reformed Catholics or Confused Catholics (no offense to High Anglicans)?

        I guess I’ll have to find a research paper on them there Old Catholics then. Be back in a flash!

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      • Fr. Kimel–Old Catholicism is based on Jansenist theology. Just read an article from Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices. Which is essentially the Catholic variation of Calvinism if you aren’t aware of that already. I think Blaise Pascal was also a Jansenist.

        They also allow women to be ordained to the priesthood and to the bishopric. Wow, interesting things you can learn with the click of a mouse!

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  2. tgbelt says:

    Looking forward to following along!

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  3. tryphonas says:

    This post reminds me of Fr. John Behr’s talk on the “shocking truth” about Orthodoxy. I remember him talking about how the Catholic tradition is quite diverse while historically heretics have more rigorously and strictly defined who’s in and who’s out.

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  4. I realize this isn’t what you are arguing here, at least not yet, but where I struggle (as a non-Orthodox) with use of the Vincentian Canon and having “added nothing” as an argument for (Eastern) Orthodoxy is the reality of Oriental Orthodoxy. Those who rejected the language of Chalcedon claim to have preserved most pristinely the deposit of faith, and it’s not difficult to see their point of view. Perhaps the response lies in a better understanding of St. Vincent along the lines of what you describe?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Really good question! As we shall see, St Vincent places a high premium on ecumenical councils; but how does one know when a council achieves the authority and status of ecumenical council?

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